So, here we are, celebrating another March Women’s History Month.
Considering all that’s going on in the world, some may find it superfluous to set aside an entire month to acknowledge the accomplishments of women, especially when it’s obvious how much women have achieved. America has its first female vice-president, the first in our nation’s history; as of Sept. 2019, according to Biz Journal, every board of directors in the S&P 500 now has a woman on the board; and, as a result of the 2020 election, women now make up a quarter of all members of the 117th Congress.
So, why is it important to focus on women’s contributions? Simple answer: by celebrating, acknowledging and sharing the history and achievements of the underrepresented, we are presented with a more complete portrait of who we are as human beings. Additionally, acknowledging the rights and privileges fought for, and won by the underrepresented and misrepresented is to ensure gains made will not be lost.
As recently as 50 years ago, a single woman in the U.S. could not get a line of credit, a mortgage or a car loan without the signature of a spouse or a responsible male. Flight attendants were primarily young, single women who could be fired for gaining a few pounds or getting married. Women were expected to stay home, raise the children and satisfy the “king of the castle.” Domestic violence was treated as a private matter; rape happened because of what we wore or how we behaved; birth control was accomplished by the rhythm method; and unwed mothers were shamed and sent away to have their baby. In short, women’s options were limited by a society that appeared to value men and their accomplishments over women and theirs.
The tenets of that patriarchal society began to crack after women fought for, Congress favored and the states ratified that the right to vote could not be denied based on sex. Though that win was initially enjoyed by white women only, it opened the doors to a broader realization of the rights of citizenship guaranteed to all U.S. citizens by the 14th Amendment.
For decades, legal champions like the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg repeatedly used the 14th amendment to argue for equality of the sexes by maintaining the belief that when the rights of men are denied, so too are the rights of women. One of her most celebrated cases involved the denial of survivor benefits to a widower because a Social Security provision assumed women were secondary providers whose incomes were unimportant (Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 1975). In the 1973 case, Frontiero v. Richardson, Ginsberg argued on behalf of the husband of a female Air Force lieutenant who was refused military benefits based on the assumption that a man was not likely to be the dependent spouse.
The result of adjudications favoring equality of the sexes has allowed greater numbers of women to enter the workforce as doctors, lawyers, CEOs, professors, scientists, politicians and business owners. Laws were passed assuring women of their reproductive rights, and women were granted full access to serve in the nation’s military. Consequences of the Covid pandemic, however, have shown in striking detail just how far women have to go to achieve true economic and societal parity.
According to a report authored by researchers at the University of Arkansas, when the virus began to take hold last spring, the number of women in the workforce began to drop dramatically as they had to assume more responsibility for child care. Additionally, a Jan. 29 article in Forbes reports the pandemic has had a greater impact on women than men with “women experiencing significant increases in domestic violence and rape, higher unemployment rates… greater exposure to the virus due to higher numbers of women in the frontline healthcare workforce, a heavier toll on mental health, and more.”
Not surprisingly, significant strides that opened doors to unparalleled opportunities for women are at risk of being lost. As the pandemic creates an overburdened and often untenable position for working women, many are reconsidering their worth. A 2020 McKinsey study of women in the workforce states that “one out of every four women is considering dropping out [of the workforce] altogether or cutting back. As many as two million women are considering taking a leave from work.”
The same study also notes that women are “three times more likely to be responsible for most household labor. And the availability of outside help they have depended on to get by has evaporated during the pandemic.”
While there is no denying women have seen tremendous gains in the fight for societal and economic equality, it is increasingly apparent just how tenuous those strides truly are.
Perhaps, Women’s History Month can provide each of us the opportunity to reflect, re-evaluate and recommit to a society that deeply values all of its citizens and grants every person an equal opportunity and full rights of citizenship inherent in the Constitution.
While it’s true we may have come a long way, it’s also increasingly apparent we have so much farther to go.
Learn more about this year’s international women’s day at www.internationalwomensday.org/.